Sunday, September 14, 2008

On Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project

This piece appears today in the Sunday Telegraph.

Immigrant life often demands a kind of self-refashioning for which one metaphor is rebirth. Aleksandar Hemon’s melancholy new novel about immigrant life, The Lazarus Project, takes up this theme of rebirth on several levels. The narrator, Vladimir Brik, is, like Hemon, a Bosnian now domiciled in America. He has an American wife, and an American self draped over his old Bosnian self. He writes a column about immigrant life for a Chicago newspaper, and wants to write a book.

Brik is roused by the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a teenaged Jewish Ukrainian immigrant who was shot dead by the police chief of Chicago in 1908 and posthumously charged with anarchist plotting. Lazarus fled a pogrom in the Ukraine to remake his life in America, but was cut down. Brik feels as if he is being beckoned by this mysterious figure. He wishes to go sniffing for traces of Averbuch’s life, exhume it, and grant this Lazarus, too, a kind of resurrection. Armed with a writer’s grant, he sets off for the Ukraine with a photographer friend, Rora, in search of Lazarus.

As established by his earlier books, notably The Question of Bruno, Hemon can write sentences of startling beauty, and cut through to the essence of a character with a single arrow: “Like Rora, she was sovereign when silent; her silence was not an absence of words, it was a thing unto itself, shaped by her.”

But the difficulty with The Lazarus Project is that the double-pronged narration, helmed by Brik and opening up intermittently to the more intense and impassioned world of Lazarus, does not allow the story to break free of its moorings in the way novelistic narration can and should. We are intrigued by the poetic yearning and idealism of Lazarus, but he comes to us hemmed in by the prosaic and uninteresting figure of Brik (tellingly, no one in the novel, not even his wife, seems to like or love him very much). The act of sympathetic imagining, which is the only thing Averbuch's story is and can be, is not only overwhelmed by the dullness of Brikian reality, but also diffused by the jostling between narrator and character.

Hemon seems to be deferring here to a modern convention in which the act and labour of storytelling is emphasised, not elided, and multiple narrations proceed in parallel. But his frame narrative waters down the charge of the life of Lazarus for which it is a conduit, so that what we get is a story that seems almost afraid of itself: indeed, a story that indicts itself through the use of the plodding word project.

An extract from The Lazarus Project can be read here. And here is a story by Hemon: "Stairway To Heaven" and an autobiographical essay, "Rationed".

1 comment:

Rohit Thombre said...

Hemon's an intriguing chap. He tries to combine the telling realist observation with the post-modernist bag of tricks you rightly call 'modern convention'. There's a delightfully dyspeptic story of his in the latest New Yorker (
about writers and their inspiration.

His story alter ego quotes a few choice sentences from a Pulitzer-winning writer, clearly parodying authors like Cormac McCarthy and Pynchon in the way they combine Zen and machismo:
"Before Nam, Cupper was burdened with the pointless enthusiasm of youth."
"One of these days the thick chitin of the world will break open and shit and sorrow will pour out and drown us all. Nothing we say can prevent that. "
...and so on. Wonderfully comic stuff. In this story at least he pulls off the segue into the American writer's voice quite nicely, I thought. Clearly someone to look out for.
This is Hemon with his appropriately Slavic accent reading Malamud's beautiful story, A Summer's Reading, in one of the New Yorker's excellent fiction podcasts. (